USA hangs on to top cable spot

Outpaced surging ESPN in core demos

As the summer shadows begin to lengthen, USA Network held on to win one of the final weeks of the season, holding off a surging ESPN to maintain its hold on the two core demos.

For the week ending Aug. 23, USA drew 1.52 million adults 25-54, outpacing ESPN's 1.31 million, while drawing 1.28 million viewers 18-49, edging the sports net by some 19,000 viewers.

In what is likely to be one of USA's final ratings victories of 2009 -- ESPN puts up garish deliveries with its "Monday Night Football" franchise, which returns for its 40th season Sept. 14 -- the network averaged 3.42 million total viewers in prime time, per Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings data.

The NBC Universal property accounted for four of the top 10 most-watched programs on ad-supported cable, drawing its largest audience of the week with "WWE Raw." The two-hour wrestling showcase averaged 5.53 million viewers on Monday, Aug. 17 between 9 p.m. and 11:08 p.m., making it the week's second most-watched program on cable.

USA's Thursday night drama "Royal Pains" drew 5.32 million viewers in the 10 p.m. time slot, while a new episode of "Monk" scared up 5.16 million viewers Friday night at 9 p.m. Also landing in the top 10 was a repeat of "NCIS," which drew 4.19 million viewers Wednesday night at 8 p.m.

Thanks to an eclectic sports slate, ESPN jumped into second place in prime, up from last week's fifth-place finish. The sports net drew a nightly crowd of 2.59 million viewers, up 50% from the prior week's delivery (1.73 million), while winning the 18-34 demo outright, with an average draw of 535,000.

ESPN's Sprint Cup coverage drew the fourth-largest audience on cable last week, as 5.62 million Nascar fans tuned in for its live coverage of Sunday afternoon's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. The network also got a lift from "Sunday Night Baseball," which featured the rubber match in the penultimate regular-season series between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox that drew 4.58 million partisans between 8 p.m. and 11:26 p.m.

On Thursday night, a New York Giants-Carolina Panthers scrimmage drew 4.56 million football fans, making the preseason NFL contest the seventh most-watched program on cable last week.

TNT held onto third place last week, averaging 2.51 million viewers in prime. The Turner net took third place among the core demos, averaging 1.15 million adults 25-54 and 957,000 viewers 18-49.

The Turner net once again drew the largest standalone audience, as a new episode of "The Closer" averaged 7.31 million viewers (including 2.89 million adults 25-54) in its Monday 9 p.m. time slot. TNT also enjoyed another strong showing from its hospital drama "Hawthorne," which averaged 3.52 million viewers Tuesday at 9 p.m., while two other originals saw significant ratings gains.

Leading out of "The Closer," sophomore courtroom strip "Raising the Bar" drew 3.47 million viewers, an increase of 13% versus the prior week's 3.06 million. On Wednesday night, the Timothy Hutton vehicle "Leverage" drew 3.43 million viewers, up 9% versus its Aug. 12 average (3.16 million).

Fox News Channel dropped two spots to fourth place, drawing 2.45 million total viewers, 585,000 of which were members of the core news demo. FNC's biggest numbers continued to come courtesy of "The O'Reilly Factor," which drew 3.85 million viewers Monday night at 8 p.m. and 3.7 million on Wednesday night.

Nick at Nite closed out the week fifth among all ad-supported cable nets, averaging 1.91 million viewers. The network notched its best demo deliveries with viewers 18-49, averaging 644,000, while drawing 774,000 viewers 6-14. Of the key kiddie demos, Nick at Nite held on to all but kids 2-11, which Cartoon Network won by a 21,000-viewer margin, drawing 630,000.

Tops among the core TV demo last week were: USA, which drew 1.28 million viewers 18-49; ESPN (1.27 million); TNT (957,000); TBS (913,000); Lifetime (725,000); A&E (704,000); Nick at Nite (644,000); FX (638,000); Syfy (621,000) and ABC Family (619,000).

As cable prepares for the fourth quarter and renewed competition from the fall broadcast season, some nets continue to launch premieres. Lifetime's long-awaited debut of "Project Runway" did not disappoint, as the competition series delivered 4.23 million viewers Thursday night at 10 p.m. More importantly, "Runway" trotted out big demos, drawing 2.41 million 18-49s, 2.24 million 25-54s and 1.42 million 18-34s.

Bravo fired up its sixth season of "Top Chef" on Aug. 19, drawing 2.59 million viewers at 9 p.m., down slightly (-4%) from its record-breaking Season 5 premiere (2.7 million). Along with the fourth installment of "Real Housewives of Atlanta," which drew 2.82 million viewers Thursday at 10 p.m., Bravo enjoyed the most-watched week in its 29-year history, averaging 952,000 viewers in prime.

Also launching a late-summer series return was AMC, which on Aug. 16 bowed the third leg of "Mad Men" to 2.77 million viewers. Sunday night's installment of Matt Weiner's period drama drew 1.91 million viewers, down 30% from the prior week, but still well above (+26%) the 13-episode season-two arc, which averaged 1.52 million viewers.

Meanwhile, non-ad-supported Disney Channel retained its hold on second place among all basic-cable nets, drawing an average nightly audience of 2.72 million viewers. On the week, the Mouse enjoyed its largest program delivery with "The Suite Life on Deck," which drew 4.31 million viewers Friday night at 8:30.

Two nights later, "Hannah Montana" served up 4.07 million viewers at 7:30 p.m., while "Suite Life" lead-in "Wizards of Waverly Place" averaged 3.95 million total viewers in its time slot.

Disney again dominated the kids demos, averaging 1.43 million kids 2-11, 1.49 million viewers 6-14 and 943,000 tweens 9-14.